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#389 - What Causes Breast Cancer, 10-May-1994

There are now more breast cancers diagosed in the U.S. each year
(181,000) than any other cancer, and all but 1000 of these occur in the
female half of the population. There are a few other cancers that occur
almost as often (lung: 168,000; colon and rectum: 155,000) but these
other cancers are spread among the entire population, both men and
women.[1] Breast cancer kills more than 46,000 American women each

The incidence (occurrence) of female breast cancer in the U.S. is
steadily increasing; according to the National Cancer Institute,
between 1973 and 1989, among women of all ages, breast cancer incidence
rose at the rate of 1.7% per year (2.1% per year among women over the
age of 50).[2] To put it most starkly, in 1960 a woman's chance of
getting breast cancer in the U.S. was one in 20; today it is one in 9.

The search for the causes of breast cancer has taken many turns. There
seems to be little doubt that something in the environment contributes
importantly to the disease because in high-incidence countries, such as
the U.S. and Germany, the death rate per 100,000 women is 4 times as
high as it is in low-incidence countries, such as Japan.[3]
Furthermore, when Japanese women migrate to the U.S., within a
generation their breast cancer rates begin to approach the U.S.

Several factors have been linked to breast cancer: age at which a
women's period begins (later is safer); age at which menopause occurs
(earlier is safer); age at birth of first child (earlier is safer);
diet (less fat and more fiber are safer); alcohol intake (less is
safer); and exercise (more is safer). All of these factors have a
common thread: they all affect the estrogen levels in a woman's blood
stream. However, these known "risk factors" still only account for 30%
of breast cancers; some 70% remains unexplained.

In the 1980s, researchers in Israel observed that the incidence of
breast cancer among Israeli women decreased noticeably when chlorinated
pesticides were reduced substantially in Israeli milk.[4]

Devra Lee Davis and others have formally proposed the hypothesis that
estrogen-mimicking chemicals in the environment, including pesticides
and industrial wastes, may explain the rise in breast cancer that has
occurred in industrialized countries during the past 30 years.[5]
Recent U.S. studies of DDT in blood and breast tissues of women who
developed breast cancer have reached contradictory conclusions about
the relationship of DDT to breast cancer: one found a statistically
significant increase in cancer among women with elevated levels of DDT
(or its by-product, DDE) in their breasts.[6] The more recent study
found slightly increased breast cancer rates among black and white
women with elevated DDT and DDE in their blood, but an opposite effect
among Asian women; taking all 3 groups together, the relationship was
not strong enough to achieve "statistical significance."[7]

Most recently, researchers with the New York State Department of Health
have found that women on Long Island have a greater chance of getting
breast cancer if they grew up within a mile of a chemical plant than if
they lived further away.[8]

Many environmental factors may contribute to breast cancer. One well-
established factor that seems to have been missed by the news media and
even by some scientists is radiation. For decades, women have been
subjected to unnecessary and unnecessarily high radiation exposures by
the medical community. (Many members of the same medical community are
now studying the relationship of chemicals to breast cancer; perhaps
this helps explain why radiation is often not discussed.)

Dr. John Gofman has recently been examining medical literature going
back to the 1930s and 1940s. He has found that many physicians were
fixated on a "problem" (later discovered not to be a problem) called
"thymic enlargement."[9] The thymus is a gland in the upper chest and
lower neck. In the '30s and '40s, doctors imagined that "thymic
enlargement" was a common and potentially fatal problem among American
children. They prescribed frequent large doses of x-rays and
fluoroscopic examinations, both for diagnosis and for therapy.
(Fluoroscopy is to x-rays what motion pictures are to snapshots.
Fluoroscopy gives the patient a much larger dose of radiation than an
x-ray.) Many doctors regularly gave x-ray treatments to newborns as a
"prophylactic" (preventive) measure --to guard against the development
of thymic enlargement. Many parents came to believe that their children
were not getting the best available medical care if they were not given
x-ray treatments. In a 1948 medical article, two physicians wrote, "The
obstetrician or pediatrician should accede to the wishes of the parents
who want neonatal [newborn] roentgenograms [x-rays] of their children.
It might even be wise to administer therapeutic doses over the thymus.
Whatever assurance is gained by this apparently harmless and perhaps
beneficial procedure will aid in alleviating any anxiety which
occasionally becomes a thymus phobia."

In a 1970 medical article, Dr. Hanson Blatz looked back on his
professional years, noting, "Those of you who have been in the field a
long time know it was once the practice of pediatricians to fluoroscope
babies and young children every month and when they had the annual
checkup. When we questioned this practice, physicians would say, 'Well,
the parents expect it. They think if I don't fluoroscope the patients,
they are not getting a complete examination."[10] Gofman notes that
Blatz must be describing habits of the 1940s and 1950s.

Gofman points out that, between 1920 and 1960, unnecessary and/or
excessive x-rays and fluoroscopic exposures of the breasts were
received by girls and women in connection with scoliosis (spinal
curvature), mammograms, screening for tuberculosis, diagnosis and
treatment of enlarged thymus, "therapy" for non-malignant breast
conditions, monitoring of tuberculosis treatments, exposure of adults
during exams of children, and non-medical uses (such as fluoroscopes in
shoe stores).

What should a reasonable and prudent person conclude from all this? Is
radiation important in causing breast cancer? Without a doubt. Is DDT?
Probably yes. Are other chlorinated compounds besides DDT? Probably
yes. Does anyone know for sure about harmful effects of these
chemicals? No.[11]

What should we do to protect ourselves and our children during the
decades that it will take for scientists to learn some of the answers?
Adopt the precautionary principle. Avoid exposing yourself to exotic
chemicals and technologies. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables,
especially the dark greens and dark yellows. Prevent pollution: phase
out chlorine and stop adding to the world's burden of radiation-
producing materials derived from nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
Trust your own common sense and don't leave important decisions
exclusively in the hands of the "experts."

--Peter Montague


[1] These are the National Cancer Institute's 1992 estimates of cancer
incidence. See Barry A. Miller and others, editors, CANCER STATISTICS
REVIEW 1973-1989 [National Institutes of Health Publication No. 92-
2789], pgs. IV.[1], XV.1, and VI.1. [2] Same publication as in note 1,
Table IV-1, pg. IV.[5].

[3] Lenore Kohlmeier and others, "Lifestyle and Trends in Worldwide
Breast Cancer Rates," in Devra Lee Davis and David Hoel, editors,
Academy of Sciences, 1990), pgs. 259-268.

[4] Jerome B. Westin and Elihu Richter, "The Israeli Breast-Cancer
Anomaly," in Devra Lee Davis and David Hoel, editors, TRENDS IN CANCER
Sciences, 1990), pgs. 269-279.

[5] Devra Lee Davis and others, "Medical Hypothesis: Xenoestrogens As
Preventable Causes of Breast Cancer," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PERSPECTIVES
Vol. 101 (October 1993), pgs. 372-377.

[6] Mary S. Wolff and others, "Blood Levels of Organochlorine Residues
Vol. 85 (April 21, 1993), pgs. 648-652.

[7] Nancy Krieger and others, "Breast Cancer and Serum Organochlorines:
A Prospective Study Among White, Black and Asian Women," JOURNAL OF THE
NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE Vol. 86 (April 20, 1994), pgs. 589-599. See
the editorial in the same issue, pgs. 572-573.

of New York Department of Health, 1994). To get the study, phone (518)

[9] John Gofman and Egan O'Connor, personal communication to P.M.,
Vol. 56 (1948), pgs. 884-892. Gofman and O'Connor can be reached at
(415) 664-1933 (phone and fax).

[10] Gofman and O'Connor, cited above, quoting Blatz as quoted in Jacob
Shapiro, RADIATION PROTECTION Third Edition (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard
University Press, 1990), pg. 421.

[11] An excellent review of the literature is: Joe Thornton, CHLORINE,
(Washington, D.C.: Greenpeace, 1993). Phone: (202) 462-1177.


The Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) is holding its fifth annual
Protecting Mother Earth Conference June 15-19 near Mole Lake,
Wisconsin. The conference is being hosted by the Mole Lake Sokaogon
Chippewa community in conjunction with the Midwest Treaty Network of
Madison, Wisconsin. IEN is a U.S.-, Alaskan-, and Canadian-based grass-
roots organization. The theme of this year's conference is
"Environmental Genocide." Some 1500 native and non-native people and
groups will come together at Mole Lake to discuss issues and develop
strategies to stop environmental injustices within and near indigenous
lands, such as deforestation, toxic and nuclear waste dumping,
radiation exposures, and contamination of air, land, and water. Non-
indigenous people of good will are welcome at the gathering. For
further information, contact conference coordinator Emily Iron Cloud
Koenan at (715) 682-4554; fax: (715) 682-9112.


Activists will gather June 8, 1994, at 8:30 a.m. at the headquarters of
WMX Technologies, Inc. (formerly Waste Management, Inc.), 720
Butterfield Rd., Oak Brook, Illinois to protest a symposium WMX is
sponsoring called "Environmental Justice: The Search for Balance." The
welcoming speaker on the topic of "Environmental Justice" will be Dean
Buntrock, chairman and CEO of WMX. According to Brenda Kenealy of WMX
Technologies [(718) 572-8934] the confirmed keynote speaker is the
Reverend Ben Chavis, executive director of the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). No one at NAACP headquarters
could confirm Mr. Chavis's participation for us.

For further information, phone Charlie Cray at Greenpeace Chicago:
(312) 563-6060, or Calvin Mitchell of Citizens Clearinghouse for
Hazardous Waste's midwest office: (317) 920-1051.

Descriptor terms: native people; conferences; breast cancer; lung
cancer; colon cancer; rectal cancer; morbidity statistics; japan;
estrogen; israel; pesticides; ddt; dde; long island, ny; studies;
radiation; john gofman; thymus; x-rays; fluoroscopy; wmx; environmental
justice; naacp; ben chavis;

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